There was little confusion, no misdirection and zero doubt about Chris Del Conte’s mission for Texas athletics when he was hired in December 2017.
He expects Texas to be Texas.
“All of our athletic programs are in the top 10 in the country and need to be competing for national championships,” Del Conte said in 2018. “That’s the benchmark going forward.”
Finally, after a spring semester that saw UT win three national championships, the Longhorns can say they’re sitting on the collegiate mountaintop. For the first time in school history, Texas won the Learfield IMG College Directors’ Cup as the most successful Division I athletic program for the 2020-21 school year.
Texas, which had finished second overall three times, claimed the title with 1,252 total points. Stanford was second with 1,195.75 points, followed by Michigan and North Carolina.
Texas has been close before, but always one of the bridesmaids. The Longhorns were second in 2001-02, 2002-03 and 2004-05. In the most recent competitions, UT was fifth after the 2017-18 season and fourth the next year.
The standings are calculated by the National Association of Collegiate Athletic Directors. The Directors’ Cup has been awarded annually since the 1993-94 school year. The cup was not awarded last year because of the pandemic.
Stanford usually takes home the top prize because it competes in a multitude of sports. A new scoring system was put into effect for the 2017-18 athletic year; 19 sports are counted, and they must include baseball, men's basketball, women's basketball and women's volleyball.
Still, Texas finished in the top 10 for six straight years before the pandemic.
Cynics will joke about how UT can be atop anything in a year when the Longhorns changed football and men’s basketball coaches. The football team went 7-3 and won its fourth straight bowl game, and the coach was still replaced. The men’s basketball team went 19-8, finished third in the Big 12, won the league’s postseason tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament. And the coach still left after a first-round loss in the NCAAs.
The statement was unequivocal. Above-average success is no longer acceptable on Del Conte’s watch. Whether you tackle, dunk, swim, swing or row, if you’re wearing burnt orange, your team is expected to compete for national titles.
New football coach Steve Sarkisian and his wife, Loreal, got their indoctrination into UT expectations while staying on campus after being hired.
“They had Longhorn Network in the AT&T Conference Center,” Sarkisian told the lunchtime crowd at the recent Boys & Girls Club of the Austin Area fundraiser. They watched the 2005 national championship game one night and games from the 2008 Fiesta Bowl season the next.
“But more importantly even than that was all of our spring sports were competing,” Sarkisian said. “And I got an opportunity to see men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s swimming, tennis, baseball, what they’re doing in volleyball, that run that our women’s basketball team goes on, watching our men’s basketball team win the Big 12 Tournament.
“You want to talk about inspiring,” he added. “Hey, I know what I signed for, the expectations here. I’ve been a head coach before, and I know what that looks like. There’s a high standard here, and I recognize that.”
Sarkisian just happened to arrive for what must be considered the most prolific run of UT success in any semester in school history.
Legendary swimming coach Eddie Reese won his 15th national championship in March. Then he promptly retired as soon as UT got back home from Greensboro, N.C.
“How do you define a guy that’s won a championship under six presidents?” Del Conte said on Reese’s retirement Zoom call. “You think about the history from 1981 to now, what’s happened in our country. It’s just mind-boggling.”
Del Conte got good news Thursday when Reese unretired to chase more championships.
The men’s tennis team won the national championship in 2019, but this year it was time for the UT women to take command. Coach Howard Joffe’s Longhorns clinched the program’s third national title with a thrilling 4-3 win over Pepperdine.
May concluded with coach Dave O’Neill’s rowing team winning its first national championship in Sarasota, Fla.
“Words can’t describe how you feel in that moment. Electric,” senior rower Alexandria Watson said moments after UT’s boat crossed the line first in the finale.
Along the way this spring, coach Jerritt Elliott’s volleyball team was the national runner-up after losing a heartbreaker to Kentucky. The women’s basketball team reached the Elite Eight under first-year coach Vic Schaefer. Men’s and women’s golf both made the NCAAs, and the softball team reached the NCAA super regionals.
The men’s track and field team tied for sixth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships while the women’s team tied for seventh. Tara Davis became the first UT woman to win the NCAA long jump outdoor title.
To close out the athletic year, the Texas baseball team got back to the College World Series after dashing through the regional and super regional rounds at UFCU Disch-Falk Field.
This stunning run of success closed out a turbulent year in which athletes were tested at least three times a week for COVID-19. The athletic facilities were closed for a while last summer and only reopened after health protocols were implemented.
Teams had ready-made excuses for poor performances. Controversy erupted over “The Eyes of Texas,” the school song, last summer and fall, and some coaches faced hard conversations with Black athletes about UT’s racial past.
Still, if someone is keeping score, Texas expects to win. And there was a lot of winning during the 2020-21 school year.